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Calvin Trillin's new book, 'About Alice,' pays tribute to his late wife: 'Educator, Author, Muse'

Calvin Trillin's new book, 'About Alice,' pays tribute to his late wife: 'Educator, Author, Muse'

Heidi Benson, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Calvin Trillin has an admission. He and his wife, Alice, did not celebrate Valentine's Day.

"It was not something done by people of our vintage," says Trillin, 71, cradling a gin martini in a window seat at the Slanted Door restaurant in the Ferry Building one recent rainy afternoon.

Outside, fog drapes the Bay Bridge, and the flat, gray light makes colors pop. A bicycle chained to a railing is startlingly green. The author's eyes are melancholy blue.

He often haunts the Ferry Building, he says, since one daughter and two of his and Alice's four grandchildren live in San Francisco.

Forget about heart-shaped bathtubs. If there are secrets to lasting love, they can be found, in luminous fragments, in Trillin's new book, "About Alice" (Random House), a tribute to his wife of nearly 40 years. Alice Stewart Trillin died in 2001 at 63.

"Anyone who wants to know what it might be like to love the same person for most of a lifetime has only to pick up this little book to find out," said the reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor.

Published this month and already a best-seller nationally and in the Bay Area, "About Alice" began as an essay in the New Yorker magazine, where Trillin has been a staff writer since 1963.

"David Remnick asked, in a sort of hushed way, if I'd ever be interested in writing about Alice," explains Trillin (who calls the Remnick regime at the New Yorker the Restoration, in a wry reference to the Tina Brown era that preceded it).

The article stirred readers in ways he never expected.

"I thought if anybody wrote me or the New Yorker, it would be people whose spouses had died or people who had loved ones who had cancer," Trillin said. Alice had survived lung cancer at age 35, published essays about her experience and wrote countless letters brimming with practical and spiritual advice to friends, acquaintances and friends-of-friends whose lives had been touched by the disease.

In response to the book, Trillin says, "I got a lot of letters like the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought, 'But will he love me like Calvin loved Alice?' " Some said the book described exactly what they hoped for in a marriage.

He's still bemused.

"I didn't know I was writing about marriage. I thought I was writing about Alice."

At the Slanted Door, a woman sips a goblet of herbal "art tea," a house specialty. It appears that a sea anemone is living in the bottom of her glass. Trillin takes notice: "I hear they're having a problem with the water." Webster's could, and should, illustrate the word "deadpan" with his portrait.

The Trillins raised two daughters in a Greenwich Village brownstone they gutted and renovated in the '60s.

"I was a pretty involved father for the times," he says. "I started working at home from the time the girls were young. My daughters just assumed that their husbands would be equal partners, but it was considered kind of weird back when I did it."

Weird but not surprising, under the circumstances. "If you're writing something, you'd really rather change diapers," he explains.

A pioneer, perhaps, but "compared to my sons-in-law, I was a malingerer. Rules have changed for the better. My father never changed a diaper, and he didn't go in the kitchen." His sons-in-law are as far ahead of him as he was ahead of his father, he says. "They're way beyond me."

Anyone who has read Trillin knows that he grew up in Kansas City, Mo., where his father, a grocer, was prone to delivering such lines as "I haven't had so much fun since the hogs ate little sister" in his flat Midwestern accent. He also spoke Yiddish.

"I grew up in a house where my parents had a happy marriage," Trillin says. "They never had an argument." According to common wisdom, such contentment -- though a positive role model for future relationships -- could have been a serious handicap to a writer.

"I did have a happy childhood," he allows. "I'll tell you that in San Francisco. In New York, that would be like saying you stopped on the way to the dinner party to sell heroin to schoolchildren."

Trillin denies having anything to do with how well their daughters turned out. "Abigail is a legal-services attorney for children, Sarah is a clinical social worker. I want to assure you that I tried to instill in them the value of selfishness and even rapaciousness," he writes. "But they had Alice there as a model."

In 1976, Alice was diagnosed with lung cancer, though she had never smoked. After surviving surgery and chemotherapy, she went into action. She wrote an article about coping with serious illness, "Of Dragons and Garden Peas," for the New England Journal of Medicine. She wrote about the folly of glamorizing female smokers in film and fashion magazines. She joined those lobbying for a smoking ban in New York City. She shared her knowledge about doctors and treatments; one of her letters -- "Dear Bruno," written to a friend's 12-year-old son who had cancer -- was published as a book.

"Alice's response to having cancer was a reminder that an intellectual is not just someone who might be able to translate 'heuristic' ..." Trillin writes. "It's someone whose instinct is to analyze anything that happens and try to make some sense out of it."

But in the spring of 2001, a routine exam showed that the treatment for Alice's cancer 30 years before had weakened her heart. She needed a bypass immediately. "As they wheeled her away, she was smiling. She said they were going to fix her heart," he writes. Alice died four months later of cardiac arrest.

Trillin is "the last of the deadline poets" (he has published two volumes of the political verse he writes weekly for the Nation) and a storyteller who counts the ways he loves Alice -- "an incorrigible, even ridiculous optimist" -- through anecdote.

There was the time, here in San Francisco, when he was giving a talk at Herbst Theatre as part of City Arts & Lectures. Someone asked how Alice liked the way she was portrayed in his work. (He has said that "About Alice" is an attempt to clarify the "sitcom" version of their life, in which she played the straight man, George Burns, to his screwball Gracie Allen.)

Trillin leveled with the audience. He said Alice thought his portrayal made her sound like "a dietitian in sensible shoes."

Then the questioner asked if Alice was in the audience. "When I said she was, he asked if she'd mind standing up. Alice stood," he writes. "As usual, she looked smashing. She didn't say anything. She just leaned over and took off one of her shoes -- shoes that looked like they cost about the amount of money required in some places to tide a family of four over for a year or two -- and, smiling, waved it in the air."

Retelling the story over lunch, he leans forward to share what is not a secret: "I won't claim I was completely unmindful of her appearance." By all accounts, including photographic evidence, Alice was a knockout.

After her death, Trillin got a letter from a good friend. "Alice was nice and she was concerned and she was smart and when she talked to you, she was thinking about you, and, also, she was so very pretty," it read. "I always thought of you as a wonderful guy, but still I couldn't figure out how you managed to get Alice."

Then and now, Trillin calls it "just dumb luck."

When they first met -- at a 1963 Greenwich Village party thrown by Victor Navasky, longtime editor of the Nation, for his short-lived magazine Monocle -- Trillin claims Alice "glowed." She was in her 20s and already teaching at Hofstra University. "She didn't defer to me or anybody else," says Trillin. "If she disagreed with you, you heard it pretty quick."

But he didn't get her undivided attention until the second party, as he recounts in the book:

"I was like a lounge comic who had been informed that a booker for 'The Tonight Show' was in the audience.

"Recalling that party in later years, Alice would sometimes say, 'You have never again been as funny as you were that night.'

" 'You mean I peaked in December of 1963?' I'd say, 20 or even 30 years later.

" 'I'm afraid so.'

"But I never stopped trying to match that evening."

When Alice's obituary ran in the New York Times, the headline read: "Educator, Author, Muse." They got the order right, Trillin says.

When she died, he was writing a novel about parking in New York -- "a subject so silly that I think I would have hesitated to submit the book to a publisher if she hadn't, somewhat to her surprise, liked it," he writes. The dedication reads: "I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice."

Today, Trillin's schedule is tight. Before heading out into the rain for another appointment, he takes one last bite of shaking beef. Told that it is Mick Jagger's favorite dish on the menu, he asks, "Will it make us androgynous?"

There are still so many Alice stories to tell. When their first daughter was born, for example. Back then, he remembers, there were actually arguments about whether men should be present when their wives gave birth. (Nowadays, the birthing room is as crowded as a cocktail party, a gynecologist friend told him.)

But on the day Abigail arrived, Trillin was there. He noticed they were playing music.

"Now, Alice would say I never asked her to dance. In fact, there may even have been a complaint about my dancing," he adds, darkly. "So, in the labor room, I asked her to dance to the Muzak." She declined, understandably, but imagine her delight.

E-mail Heidi Benson at hbenson@sfchronicle.com.

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